Understanding Grief, Or Not
This is a handout from a grief support group. I will share it and then add some words of my own at the end. I like to reference, and will provide what is provided in the handout. It is called Understanding Grief, by Jane Brody, January 15, 2018, but I do not know where the article comes from. Throughout the article, I have made brief comments, in parentheses, and they are notated by “My note.”
And one more thing. Normally I would edit this down. My comments at the end just do not seem to flow the way I would like them to, and one day I may fix it, or maybe not. I was going to, but then I found out that a neighbor was recently diagnosed with the same cancer my wife had, and I am truly shaken, and so I am excusing myself from the task of further editing on this, having a glass of wine, and getting this posted (I said posted, not plastered, right?…yes, posted.)
Although many of us are able to speak frankly about death, we still have a lot to learn about dealing wisely with its aftermath, grief, the natural reaction to loss of a loved one.
Relatively few of us know what to say or do that can be truly helpful to a relative, friend or acquaintance who is grieving. In fact, relatively few who have suffered a painful loss know how to be most helpful to themselves.
Two new books by psychotherapists who have worked extensively in the field of loss and grief are replete with stories and guidance that can help both those in mourning and the people they encounter avoid many of the common pitfalls and misunderstandings associated with grief. Both books attempt to correct false assumptions about how and how long grief might be experienced.
One book, “It’s OK That You’re Not OK,” by Megan Devine of Portland, Oregon, has the telling subtitle “Meeting Grief and Loss In A Culture That Doesn’t Understand.” It grew out of the tragic loss of her beloved partner who drowned at age 39 while the couple was on vacation. The other book, especially illuminating in its coverage of how people cope with different kinds of losses, is “Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving,” by Julia Samuel, who works with bereaved families both in private practice and at England’s National Health Service, at St. Mary’s Hospital, Paddington.
The books share a most telling message. As Ms. Samuel put it, “There is no right or wrong in grief; we need to accept whatever form it takes, both in ourselves and in others.” Recognizing loss as a universal experience, Ms. Devine hopes that “if we can start to understand the true nature of grief, we can have a more helpful, loving, supportive culture.”
Both authors emphasize that grief is not a problem to be solved or resolved. Rather, it’s a process to be tended and lived through in whatever form and however long it may take.
“The process cannot be hurried by friends and family,” however well meaning their desire to relieve the griever’s anguish, Ms. Samuel wrote. “Recovery and adjustment can take much longer than most people realize. We need to accept whatever form it takes, both in ourselves and in others.”
We can all benefit from learning how to respond to grief in ways that don’t prolong, intensify or dismiss the pain. Likewise, those trying to help need to know that grief cannot be fit into a preordained time frame or form of expression. Too often people who experience a loss are disparaged because their mourning persists longer than others think reasonable or because they remain self-contained and seem not to mourn at all. (My note: this can be a child, a teen, or an adult)
I imagine, for example, that some adults thought my stoical response to my mother’s premature death when I was sixteen was “unnatural.” In truth, after tending to her for a year as she suffered through an unstoppable cancer, her death was a relief. It took a year for me to shed my armor and openly mourn the incalculable loss. But sixty years later, I still treasure her most important legacy: To live each day as if it could be my last but with an eye on the future in case it’s not. (My note: I like that concept very much. That was the original meaning of “carpe diem”, live fully but plan for tomorrow, not the popularized, “seize the day” as we have come to use the term.)
Likewise, I was relieved when my husband’s suffering ended six weeks after diagnosis of an incurable cancer. Though I missed him terribly, I seemed to go on with my life as if little had changed. Few outside of the immediate family knew that I was honoring his dying wish that I continue to live fully for my own sake and that of our children and grandchildren.
Just as we all love others in our own unique ways, so do we mourn their loss in ways that cannot be fit into a single mold or even a dozen different molds. Last month, James G. Robinson, director of global analytics for The New York Times, described a thirty-seven-day, 6,150-mile therapeutic road trip he took with his family following the death of his five year old son, collecting commemorative objects along the way and giving each member of the family a chance to express anger and sadness about the untimely loss.
Ms. Devine maintains that most grief support offered by professionals and others takes the wrong approach by encouraging mourners to move through the pain. While family and friends naturally want you to feel better, “pain that is not allowed to be spoken or expressed turns in on itself, and creates more problems,” she wrote. “Unacknowledged and unheard pain doesn’t go away. The way to survive grief is by allowing pain to exist, not in trying to cover it up or rush through it.”
As a bereaved mother told Ms. Samuel, “You never ‘get OVER it, you get on WITH it,’ and you never ‘move ON,’ but you ‘move FORWARD.’” (My note: And, in my words, I would add, I carry it WITH me, always and forever, so I move forward, but with it in my heart, it moves forward with me as I move forward, for as long as I live, and longer, I like to think.)
Ms. Devine agrees that being “encourage to ‘get over it’ is one of the biggest causes of suffering inside grief.” Rather than trying to “cure” pain, the goal should be to minimize suffering, which she said “comes when we feel dismissed or unsupported in our pain, with being told there is something wrong with what you feel.” (My note: Or, I tell MYSELF I should feel differently.)
She explains that pain cannot be “fixed,” that companionship, not correction, is the best way to deal with grief. She encourages those who want to be helpful to “bear witness,” to offer friendship without probing questions or unsolicited advice, help if it is needed and wanted, and a listening ear not matter how often mourners wish to tell their story.
To those who grieve, she suggests finding a nondestructive way to express it. “If you can’t tell your story to another human, find another way: Jounal, paint, make your grief into a graphic move with a very dark story line. Or go out to the woods and tell the trees. It is an immense relief to be able to tell your story without someone trying to fix it.” (My note: There may come a time when others get tired of hearing “it,” and when I sense that in someone else, or maybe I am tired realizing I keep telling it, I don’t feel good inside. I may have a difficult time holding back from talking about “it”. Or I may have a difficult time because I want to keep talking about “it”. I may need to talk to the trees at that point, day or night, or to an animal ((cats and dogs are really good listeners)), or a stuffed toy animal ((I have a whole bunch, but a few are favorites)) or to God, the sky, the ocean, river, lake or pond, birds, sun, moon, something if not a someone.)
She also suggests keeping a journal that records situations that either intensify or relieve suffering. (My note: Two of my helpers, music ((listening and playing)), and writing down my thoughts and feelings, writing poems, writing songs, moving to music…that may be three, if anyone is counting.)
“Are there times you feel more stable, more grounded, more able to breathe inside your loss? Does anything – a person, a place, an activity – add to your energy bank account? Conversely, are there activities or environments that absolutely make things worse?”
Whenever possible, to decrease suffering choose to engage in things that help and avoid those that don’t. (My note: This last sentence seems so obvious and almost comical to read, but when in the forest, sometimes I can’t see the trees, and when I am suffering, I may not be thinking very clearly, and is that ever an understatement.)
First, there is a book that I liked very much, called “Good Grief” with the subtitle “Healing Through the Shadow of Loss,” by Deborah Morris Coryell. First published in 1997, a summary states, “We grieve for that which we have loved, and the transient nature of life makes love and loss intimate companions. In Good Grief, professional grief educator Deborah Morris Coryell describes grief as the experience of not having anywhere to place our love, of losing a connection, an outlet for our emotion. To heal our grief, we have to learn how to continue to love in the face of loss.” The author is a visiting faculty member for Dr. Andrew Weil’s program in Integrative Medicine and is cofounder and executive director of the Shiva Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the education and support of those dealing with loss and death, located in San Luis Obispo, California.
To return to the last sentence of the above article, to be kind and compassionate to myself, whenever possible, and to minimize my suffering, I do my best to engage in things that help, and, avoid those that don’t. This takes time, and experience, and may also change over time.
Adjusting to what works and what doesn’t work takes a “fly by the seat of my pants” approach. I learn over time, and sometimes I learn in the moment as things are happening. This is new for me, as are so many things when flying SOLO after being with a partner.
Giving myself permission to learn as I go is part of being kind with myself. So is seeing myself give myself a hug when I need one. I not only see it, I feel it.
I may cry as I’m doing this, but that’s okay. Maybe, instead of the title of one of the books “It’s okay that I’m not okay,” I like to say, “I am okay just as I am in this moment” which will be different from all the other moments. Also, this doesn’t put a “not okay” label on myself.
Okay or not okay by whose standards? The general population? The non-grieving people? I think we all have grief and loss inside us. From the moment of birth, I feel a sense of loss of the safety of the womb. So, I am “okay,” even if someone else may not see it that way. And, my “okayness” in this moment, feeling what I am feeling, is just as okay as what I feel in all the other moments.
And, I will continue to hug myself, a new behavior for me, for as long as I need to. Even if I do find another to help with hugs, I like knowing I am able to do that for myself when I want to, without being dependent. I like hugs. There isn’t always someone else around who wants to oblige, however.
And, as I continue to be loving toward myself in this way, I expand myself to be able to do this for another. I think this is how I know I am growing in my grief and loss. When I am able to give, not only to myself, but to someone else. I will get there. Baby steps. It is in this line of thinking that Coryell gives inspiring examples of how embracing our losses allows us to awaken our most profound connections to other people.
But, none of this is easy, and it unfolds differently for each of us. And, immediately after MY loss, the noise of my pain is too loud to hear much else. Eventually, I can start to hear other sounds, which is both joyful and painful at the same time, requiring me to let go of what I am so desperately clinging to, in order to let something else in. I feel like I am letting go of a rock I have been clinging to in the middle of a swift current of an ocean that has been buffeting me around.
I must take a leap of faith that letting go of my rock of suffering and hurt will lead me to a life preserver I cannot yet see or reach without swimming to it. I am taking a free fall into the unknown with that creepy feeling of knowing the water is deep underneath me, vast all around me, and for a moment forgetting I know how to float, swim, and tread water. It is one of the most terrifying transitions.
I have only myself. And although I feel like I am letting go, I do not feel the exhilaration of life yet. It flashed on the movie screen for a split second, but not long enough to know if I really saw something or what that something was, and, before it becomes intriguing it is disturbing, until it stays on the screen longer.
Even after feeling the love inside me, I still experience this terror from time to time. Like I said, baby steps. Again, and again.
Understanding grief. Lots of books, some are helpful, some are not so helpful. It is a lifelong process. I don’t know if I ever really understand it the way I understand one plus one equals two. I feel it. At times I feel it stronger than at other times. I always know it is there, sometimes it just speaks louder. It knows it is welcome to speak when it needs to.
Maybe that is what is most important to me. I can allow grief to be a part of me, as I start to want to be alive again. It has become a part of me, as I continue on. I am different because of grief, and I cannot go back. And joyful and sad continue to learn to sing together, sometimes, with dissonance, and sometimes, in perfect harmony.